I would have stopped there if I had been a few decades younger and still reckless and easily thrilled by mega-fireworks. It was one of three stores on the Nez Perce Reservation in tiny Lapwai, Idaho, competing to sell the really good stuff for the Fourth of July. I passed it ten times during a research trip in late June.

A fire bug as a kid, I thought of the business tonight as we lit the most demure fireworks for little Atticus, who looked on in wonder, hands clasped over sensitive ears. Maybe one day I’ll take him to Lapwai and we’ll stock up at the place that wins my award for best business name ever: Pyro Paradise.


Blissful Ignorance

July 3, 2009

Seeing the world through the eyes of four year olds must be like looking through a peephole. This narrow, constrained view also bestows them with blissful ignorance. Take as evidence an exchange today involving our little boy and his friend:

NPR, soundtrack of our life, blares in the kitchen. Michael Jackson’s name is mentioned, again. The friend asks how he died. “A heart attack,” my wife says. The friend thinks about this, then states with authority that “a dog attacked him, then a cat.”

Now comes the blissful part. Our son, Atticus, says, “Who’s Michael Jackson?”


not-jackson-sundown-houseRarely is anything as it appears. How’s that for an overused truism? But it’s one I keep learning again and again. Take the case of this abandoned house. During a seven-day research trip last week, it was first on a long list of places and people to see on the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston, Idaho.

Two years ago, my daughter Erin gave me a sepia-toned and more poignant version taken by a professional photographer. The gift was tied to a book that I was writing with Ann Terry Hill. The book, Pendleton Round-Up at 100: Oregon’s Legendary Rodeo, includes stories about legendary Nez Perce cowboy Jackson Sundown. A caption below the photograph, which is displayed in my office bookcase, identifies the house as Sundown’s cabin. I had emailed the photographer for directions in 2007.

I finally made it there on June 20, beginning research for a much bigger story. The house, leaning south amid a hillside of flowering peas, is on Highway 95 in Culdesac. I took a dozen photos inside and out, and videotaped everything, complete with a hushed narration meant to lend solemnity to the moment. I rubbed my hand over wood weathered black. I peered at nails protruding from a wall, wondering whether Sundown used them to hang his clothes. I wanted to feel his presence eighty-six years after his death.

Later while talking to some of Sundown’s relatives about the house, I realized something was amiss. The lonely place beneath a dying tree wasn’t Sundown’s. The photographer had been given bad information.

I drove south on 95 again, but not as far, and turned on Mission Creek Road at the Jacques Spur Junction Cafe, an out-of-the-way place made famous by the unsolved murder of Rufus the friendly wild turkey. Scanning a creek-fed stand of trees bordering a wheat field, I couldn’t spot the house where I was told it would be. So I parked and walked slowly along the road, peering again into the trees. Still no luck.

sundown-hidden-houseAs I headed to my car, convinced I was in the wrong place again, something brown amid the greenery caught my eye. I tromped across the field with cameras slung over my shoulders. Into the underbrush I plunged. To make any headway I had to push aside slender and delicate white-flowering plants taller than me, plants I later learned are musquash root, more formally known as poison hemlock, whose juice put an end to Socrates.

In the dusk-like shade of walnut trees and the tallest cherry tree I’ve seen, the crumbling remains of the house came into view. Much of the second story has collapsed, and the rest is coming apart board by board. But it was intact enough to imagine Sundown living there with his second wife, Cecilia Wapsheli, who owned the house and ranch before she met the legendary horseman and whose descendant still owns the property.

For awhile I sat at the edge of the creek behind the house and listened to water flowing over rocks. In my mind an untold story began to write itself.



Obsession as Elixir

June 27, 2009

News that Farrah Fawcett died this week at age sixty-two conjured a memory. I was a young reporter in Thomasville, Georgia. It was 1975 or thereabouts. I wrote a story about a boy afflicted with a terminal disease, a boy whose only source of joy was his obsession with Charlie’s Angels. Read More


History Repeating

June 17, 2009

In 1978, when I was a young newspaper reporter in Melbourne, Florida, I covered a protest march by a few dozen Iranian students. Carrying placards and shouting slogans, faces flush with anger, they looked as if they had wandered onto the wrong movie set.

I didn’t know much about the target of their rage: the Shah of Iran and his hated secret police, SAVAK. Passing motorists gave the group confused looks. Nobody was paying attention to the unrest in Iran, of which these Florida Institute of Technology students were a distant part. Nobody could have guessed that the rich and powerful Shah would be overthrown the next year, or two years after that, in 1981, Islamist revolutionaries would seize fifty-two American hostages, ensnaring the United States for decades.

Read More


Revolution in Real Time

June 15, 2009

If you’re interested in following a revolution for freedom in real time, one in which people risk their lives to stop oppression, follow what’s happening in Iran via Andrew Sullivan’s blog. The response to the hijacked election is among the most moving news events I’ve encountered, largely because much of the coverage comes directly from people risking their lives. Read More


Dueling Gardens

June 9, 2009

I’m afflicted with vegetable garden envy. Sure, we have many things growing and gracing the dinner table. Way too much lettuce in fact. But our urban bounty has come to harvest slowly because no part of the yard has day-long sun. And there’s one raised bed in which everything seems frozen in time despite the adjacent house wall radiating afternoon sun. (The soil testing kit — pH, nitrogen, potassium, and potash levels — arrived late today.) Read More


Isn’t the appeal of this photo the immediate emotional response it triggers? And that response, different for every viewer, likely has nothing to do with the moment captured or starkly beautiful landscape or its inhabitants. I guess that’s why it ranked first in this contest.



Finally, a Leader

June 4, 2009

I don’t agree with everything President Obama does or doesn’t do. But too many people miss his essential, rare quality: he is a real leader, a leader unafraid to take on difficult and complex problems by confronting them with blunt yet uplifting language, language that holds up a mirror, a mirror reflecting truth. From his speech in Cairo today about the Middle East, religion, and much more:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.


Musical Bridge

June 1, 2009

Is the banjo’s sound a pleasure genetically shared? My grown son, Zachary, told me again today how much he loves Sufjan Stevens‘ rooftop rendition of “Lakes of Canada.” Part of the appeal is more than the banjo, however. It’s the way Stevens is filmed by La Blogotheque, coincidentally in my city of birth. Funny how much our tastes in music overlap — and unite, despite the age difference of thirty-five years. And the differences that divide fathers and sons.



Sacrificing scenery

May 31, 2009

Until the last few days, I hadn’t traveled through the Columbia River Gorge and seen the new price of protecting the planet. For several miles east of The Dalles, the bare ridge lines that for eons had starkly demarcated earth from sky now are scarred with wind turbines. Aligned like robotic sentries, they look like a science fiction future set in the prehistoric past. Read More



May 30, 2009

South of the tiny hamlet of Pilot Rock along a lonely road, I saw an ancient barn. One end had collapsed. No one lives close enough in the desolate hills to have heard it. The rest of the building looked ready to fall in the next big wind. I ventured inside. Sunlight poured through holes in the roof. Dried cow dung littered the dirt floor. From a darkened corner came a noise. A deer stared at me then scrambled through a gap in the rear wall, hooves clattering on fallen planks. I was alone.



At the bus stop

May 28, 2009

Mother: What are you so angry about, bitch?

Daughter: I’m not angry.

Mother: It’s all over your face, bitch.

Daughter: What are you talking about? Read More